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James P. Ronda holds the H. G. Barnard Chair in Western History at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of Finding the West: Explorations with Lewis and Clark, Astoria and Empire, and Lewis and Clark among the Indians.
Depending on your point of view, this book may rate a higher score than I gave it. It fits nicely into an important niche in western history. It is well written and easily read. It gives us an intriguing taste of important historical events. However, it takes the plate away while we are still hungry. At the final page, we have a sneaking hunch that we read the wrong book. In fact, maybe the extensive references and footnotes are telling us that it takes an entire bookshelf to fill this niche.
History books need indexes. The reader will especially miss the index that should have been included here since there is considerable overlap between the several elements of the narrative. In addition, Ronda becomes a bit of a name dropper in this book and it is difficult to keep the players straight.
People too often forget that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a military mission. Ronda reminds us that the army was the nation's primary tool in exploring the west from the time the United States procured the Louisiana Purchase into the 1870s. The major player from 1838 until 1863 was the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers, although the Army housed topographical engineering within its Corps of Engineers both before and after that period.
Ronda designates the Corp's officers as "soldier-scientists. " Most were West Point graduates. They combined military organization with scientific discipline. In general, the Corps leadership gave their field personnel broad objectives combining geography and natural history. Gathering knowledge about plants, animals, terrain, and even human inhabitants was considered a fundamental part of mapping and surveying potential travel routes.Read more ›
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